Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
January is horse killing season among baseball writers. Starting in February, those dead horses are beaten all the way up to Opening Day. I want to talk about the Rockies outfield defensive alignment before the dead horse that this article beats is overly dead.
Not long ago, there was not just talk, but apparent confirmation, that Carlos Gonzalez would start in center field rather the position he played last year, left field. With him in center field, the left field spot would be up for grabs among Corey Dickerson, Charlie Blackmon, Drew Stubbs, and Brandon Barnes, likely resulting in a platoon. But on Saturday, Troy Renck of the Denver Post and Thomas Harding of MLB.com reported that, no, Carlos Gonzalez would not be the everyday center fielder. Instead, he will remain the everyday left fielder, moving the erstwhile left field competition to center field. Throughout all of the discussion of the Rockies 2014 outfield, it has been self-evident that Michael Cuddyer will start most games in right field. That shouldn’t be the case. In this post, I propose that the best defensive outfield alignment has not yet been broached: Michael Cuddyer should play left field.
My argument is based on the following: the types of balls most often hit to right field as opposed to left field, how well the Rockies corner outfielders fielded those balls in 2013, and the type of pitcher that makes outfield alignment important. This post is inspired by an article Dave Cameron wrote for FanGraphs in February 2013 that has been kicking around in my head for a while, and it attempts to apply the claims Jeff Zimmerman recently offered in an article for the Hardball Times.
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Both baseball orthodoxy and data driven analysis of outfield alignment agree that the best outfielder should play center field. Dave Cameron writes that from 2010 to 2012, about 43 percent of balls in play (excluding ground balls) fielded by an outfielder went to center field, while 29 percent went to left, and another 29 percent to right field. It’s a pretty even split to the corners. We know that the reason the best fielder should play center field is because that is where most fielded balls are hit. Based on this, it might at first seem like the left and right fielders are interchangeable. But not all balls in play are the same.
Some things to remember: most MLB hitters are right-handed, the majority of pulled balls are grounders, and most fly balls are hit to the opposite field. Right handers pull their balls in play to the left—toward third base and left field. In 2013, 60 percent of pulled batted balls (both right and left handed) were groundballs, 20 percent were line drives, and another 20 percent were fly balls. In contrast, balls hit to the opposite field—for the majority right handers this means balls hit toward first and second base, as well as right field—have a different profile. Only 22 percent were groundballs, 23 percent were line drives, and 53 percent of batted balls were fly balls. The salient point is the discrepancy between ground balls and fly balls—the former are usually pulled and the latter are hit to the opposite field. Most fly balls go to right field.
This is where Zimmerman’s Hardball Times article comes in. His subject is the hang-time of fly balls (based on data provided by Inside Edge), the percentage that end up as outs, and the percentage that go for extra base hits. Zimmerman confirmed the intuitive conclusion that the longer a ball is in the air, the more likely it will end up as an out. The novel idea and the significant take-away is that fly balls with a hang-time ranging from 2.5 to 4.0 seconds, what he terms “sharp fly balls,” are the ones that go for extra base hits more often than any other type of fly ball. Therefore, fielding sharp fly balls is a key component of run prevention.
In 2013, the Rockies were not very good at fielding sharp fly balls. For all of baseball, 62 percent of all fly balls ended up as outs, but only about 50 percent of sharp fly balls were outs. Similarly, ten percent of all fly balls ended up as extra base hits, whereas that number was 17 percent for sharp fly balls. The Rockies outfielders, however, caught only 52 percent of all fly balls for outs, and only 44 percent of sharp fly balls, both not only below average, but the worst of any team in baseball. As Zimmerman notes, the reason can’t be attributed to Coors Field’s expansiveness. Not only were their road numbers just about the same as at home, but road teams playing in Coors Field caught 60 percent of fly balls and 48 percent of sharp fly balls for outs—just about average.
In 2013, Michael Cuddyer played 118 games in right field, Dexter Fowler 110 in center field, and Carlos Gonzalez 106 in left field. Of the three, Carlos Gonzalez had the highest DRS, at 10, while Fowler and Cuddyer were minus defenders, at -3 and -16, respectively. Given that most batters are right handed, most fly balls and sharp fly balls go to right field. The 2013 Rockies had trouble fielding both last year, and I submit that placing their two best defenders in left and center field, while fielding their worst defender in right field, is a possible reason why. Switching Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer might be a solution to the problem. It seems to me that this would be the trade-off: on the one hand, Cuddyer would field more balls in play, but they would be balls less likely to be caught for outs in the first place, such as ground balls that made it through the infield and line drives; on the other hand, Gonzalez could have more opportunity to catch fly balls and sharp fly balls in right field for outs. It’s the better defensive alignment.
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The defensive spray charts for Gonzalez and Cuddyer in 2013 (courtesy of FanGraphs and Inside Edge; you can make the dots appear and disappear by clicking on them in the legend) support this. The chart below shows all of the plays Gonzalez made in left field in 2013. Note the number of plays he made that had a less than a 60 percent chance of being fielded. Fielding these plays made Gonzalez a plus defender last year.
This spray chart shows the plays Cuddyer made in right field–note that he made fewer difficult plays.
In contrast, Gonzalez missed nine plays in left field last year that had a chance to be fielded. But based on Inside Edge’s estimation, none of them were likely going to be an out. Essentially, if there was at least a 40 percent chance that the ball would be caught, Gonzalez caught it.
Cuddyer’s chart of missed plays shows that he missed two balls that had at least a 90 percent chance of being caught and three more that had a 60 to 90 percent chance.
The spray charts demonstrate that Gonzalez made all of the routine plays and only missed the difficult ones, but he caught some of those, too. Cuddyer made most of the routine plays, but he also missed some of those. Gonzalez would make more plays in right field, and they would likely be the sharp fly balls that in 2013 the Rockies let land for extra base hits. The Rockies poor performance in 2013 might have been due to poor outfield alignment.
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Of course, batted ball type heavily relies on pitchers. This is the rub for the Rockies. The Rockies have long sought ground ball pitchers to limit the amount of home runs that fly ball pitchers might give up while playing at Coors Field. It’s a sound strategy, and ground ball pitchers are desirable everywhere if they are successful at actually inducing ground balls. But there’s a catch to that approach. In his article, Zimmerman looked at the top ten fly ball pitchers from 2013—guys with about a 40-50 percent fly ball rate. Their average sharp fly ball percentage was 30 percent. Zimmerman also looked at the top ten ground ball pitchers—the type of pitcher with a ground ball rate over 50 percent and a fly ball rate anywhere from 24 to 31 percent. But their average sharp fly ball percentage was at 38 percent as opposed to 30 percent. Batted balls off of fly ball pitchers have more air under them, which can lead to more home runs. But they also suppress the type of fly balls that most often land for extra base hits—the sharp fly balls that are in the air from 2.5 to 4 seconds. Conversely, ground ball pitchers are more prone to allow those types of fly balls
Here are the fly ball and ground ball rates for the main Rockies starts from 2013.
Each ratio, with the slight exception of Nicasio, fits into the camp that allowed more troublesome sharp fly balls in 2013. If the Rockies are going to commit to ground ball pitching as the path to success at Coors Field, then they, perhaps more than any other team, can benefit from an optimized outfield alignment in order to reduce the number of sharp fly balls that land for extra base hits. While groundball pitchers might not allow as many home runs as fly ball pitchers, the type of fly balls that they do allow land for extra base hits more often.
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I propose that Cuddyer in right field was part of the 2013 problem, and that Cuddyer in left field could be a potential 2014 solution. Of course, it might not actually be viable this year. Cuddyer has only played 38 innings in left field in his thirteen year career, and only 36 in center field. He might be most comfortable in right field due to the fact that he is deaf in his left ear. So in his fourteenth season, such an alignment might not work as I suggest (Cuddyer should really be playing first base—but I digress). Nevertheless, this analysis is applicable beyond the 2014 season, particularly because the type of pitcher the Rockies value is more prone to giving up sharp fly balls. Assuming that the Rockies field their best outfielder in center, next year and after, the better of the two remaining outfielders should play right field.